Chicago’s Polish Village was once a thriving community, with a cluster of old-fashioned delis open during the day and a hopping club scene at night. Visit the retail corridor along northwest Milwaukee Avenue today, and you still see Polish money exchanges, travel agencies and restaurants. But like a lot of ethnic enclaves that were once initial landing pads for immigrants, the neighborhood has seen better days, Now, some in Polish Village believe the area is ripe for revitalization thanks to immigration reform.
The recently-passed Senate immigration bill contains a provision that would loosen visa requirements for visitors from several countries, including Poland. It focuses on tweaking the Visa Waiver Program, under which visitors from dozens of countries enjoy fast-lane privileges when they visit the U.S. Right now, Poland is not one of them.
“You have to sink over $100 just to have the chance to maybe come,” explained Dan Pogorzelski, Executive Director of the Greater Avondale Chamber of Commerce. “You have an interview process and people have said numerous times that they can ask very invasive, very degrading questions when they’re waiting.”
Indeed, Poles hoping to travel to the U.S. for up to 90 days pay a $160 non-refundable visa application fee. After that, the U.S. embassy or Consulate in Poland has full discretion to grant or deny a person’s bid to come, based on their assessment of how likely the individual is to attempt overstaying the visa illegally.
In Chicago, loosening those travel requirements could be a boon to the business district that Pogorzelski represents in Avondale.
“Many of these stores have been closing,” he said, “and this is certainly one way that these establishments certainly hope that they can revitalize their business.”
In store after store along Milwaukee Avenue, Polish business owners lament the drop in business they’ve seen over the last 25 years. “Now it’s worse. Much less people than before,” said Danna Pluta, owner of the Podlasie Club, a dance venue and bar. “Three-quarters less people than there were before.”
Pogorzelski and others attribute Polish Village’s decline to three factors. First, many Polish immigrants in Chicago moved to the suburbs once they were more established in their lives. Then in 2004, Poland joined the European Union, opening all of Europe to Polish workers. Finally, the Great Recession of 2008 drove many Poles from Chicago back to Poland for a better economy.
With less Poles moving to the U.S. for work, Pluta hopes a new Visa Waiver Program will boost tourism and help make up for it. “She’s like please, save this district. This is so beautiful, this location,” Pogorzelski translated for Pluta, “she asked me to tell you how good it is, and we need to make sure we save this area.”
But it could be dangerous for Pluta and others to place all their hope in tourism. Immigration reform is not a done deal, and the changes to the Visa Waiver Program might get dropped from the bill. Plus, who can say if Polish tourists will even want to come here?
“Really, to be honest, you have to be very realistic and honest with yourself. You’re hoping more than anything else,” said Peter Bacik, owner of First Choice Bacik Deli. Bacik worries Polish tourists might visit Polish communities in Connecticut and New York before they think about Chicago.
Bacik’s speaking from experience. His father once owned a deli in Polish Village, but it closed when the neighborhood started changing. “Nothing lasts forever,” said Bacik. He said local business owners shouldn’t count on immigration reform to give Polish Village a boost. Instead, they should worry about finding customers who are already here.
That’s what he and his wife did when they opened their own deli about 20 years ago. They’re still on Milwaukee Avenue — but 10 miles north of Polish Village, in Niles.